Book Salon – Joseph Mangano, Author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment

[Note: On Saturday afternoon, I hosted FDL Book Salon, featuring a live Q&A with Joseph Mangano, author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment. This is a repost of that discussion.]

In December of 1962, Consolidated Edison, New York City’s main purveyor of electricity, announced that it had submitted an official proposal to the US Atomic Energy Commission (the AEC, the precursor to today’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for the construction of a nuclear power plant on a site called Ravenswood. . . in Queens. . . on the East River. . . directly across from the United Nations. . . within five miles of roughly five million people.

Ravenswood became the site of America’s first demonstrations against nuclear power. It inspired petitions to President John F. Kennedy and NYC Mayor Robert Wagner, and the possibility of a nuclear reactor in such a densely populated area even invited public skepticism from the pro-nuclear head of the AEC, David Lilienthal. Finally, after a year of pressure, led by the borough’s community leaders, Con Edison withdrew their application.

But within three years, reports suggested Con Ed had plans to build a nuclear plant under Central Park. After that idea was roundly criticized, the utility publicly proposed a reactor complex under Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), instead.

Despite the strong support of Laurence Rockefeller, the brother of New York State’s governor, the Welfare Island project disappeared from Con Ed’s plans by 1970. . . soon to be replaced by the idea of a nuclear “jetport”–artificial islands to be built in the ocean just south of New York City that would host a pair of commercial reactors.

Does that sound like madness? Well, from today’s perspective–with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima universally understood as synonyms for disaster–it probably does. But there was a time before those meltdowns when nuclear power still had a bit of a glow, when, despite (or because of) the devastation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, many believed that the atom’s awesome power could be harnessed for good; a time when dangerous and deadly mishaps at a number of the nation’s earlier reactors were easily excused or kept completely secret.

In Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment, Joseph Mangano returns to that time, and then methodically pulls back the curtain on the real history of nuclear folly and failure, and the energy source that continues to masquerade as clean, safe, and “too cheap to meter.”

From Chalk River, in Canada, the world’s first reactor meltdown, through Idaho’s EBR-1, Waltz Mill, PA, Santa Susana’s failed Sodium Reactor Experiment, the Idaho National Lab explosion that killed three, Fermi-1, which almost irradiated Detroit, and, of course, Three Mile Island, Mad Science provides a chilling catalog of nuclear accidents, all of which were disasters in their own right, and all of which illustrate a troubling pattern of safety breeches followed by secrecy and lies.

Nuclear power’s precarious existence is not, of course, just a story for the history books, and Mangano also details the state of America’s 104 remaining reactors. So many of today’s plants have problems, too, but perhaps the maddest thing about the mad science of civilian atomic power is that science often plays a minor role in decisions about the technology’s future.

From its earliest days, this supposedly super-cheap energy was financially unsustainable. By the mid-1950s, private insurers had turned their back on nuclear facilities, fearing the massive payouts that would follow any accident. The nuclear industry turned to the US government, and in 1957, the Price-Anderson Act limited a plant’s liability to an artificially low but apparently insurable figure–any damage beyond that would be covered by US taxpayers. Shippingport, America’s first large-scale commercial nuclear reactor, was built entirely with government money, and that is hardly an isolated story. Even before the Three Mile Island meltdown, Wall Street had walked away from nuclear energy, meaning that no new reactors could be built without massive federal loan guarantees.

Indeed, the cost of construction, when piled on top of the cost of fueling, skilled labor, operation and upkeep, made the prospect of opening a new nuclear plant financially unpalatable. So, as Mangano explains, nuclear utilities turned to another strategy for making their vertical profitable, one familiar to any student of late Western capitalism. Rather than build, energy companies would instead buy. Since the 1990s, the nuclear sector has seen massive consolidation. Mergers and acquisitions have created nuclear mega-corporations, like Exelon, Duke, and Entergy, which run multiple reactors across many facilities in many states. And the supposed regulators of the industry, the NRC, has encouraged this behavior by rubberstamping dozens upon dozens of 20-year license extensions, turning reactors that were supposed to be nearing the end of their functional lives into valuable assets.

But the pain of nuclear power isn’t only measured in meltdowns and money. Whether firing on all cylinders (as it were) or falling apart, nuclear plants have proven to be dangerous to the populations they are supposed to serve. Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist by trade, and director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), has made a career out of trying to understand the immediate and long-term effects of nuclear madness, be it from fallout, leaks, or the “permissible levels” of radioactive isotopes that are regularly released from reactors as part of normal operation.

As I mentioned earlier this week, Mangano and the RPHP are the inheritors of the Baby Tooth Survey, the groundbreaking examination of strontium levels in children born before, during and after the age of atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. The discovery of high levels of Sr-90, a radioactive byproduct of uranium fission, in the baby teeth of children born in the 1950s and ’60s led directly to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Mangano’s work has built on the original survey, linking elevated Sr-90 levels to cancer, and examining the increases in strontium in the bodies of children that lived close to nuclear power plants. And all of this is explained in great detail in Mad Science.

The author has also applied his expertise to the fallout from the ongoing Fukushima disaster. Last December, Mangano and Janette Sherman published a peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Health Sciences (PDF) stating that in the 14 weeks following the start of the Japanese nuclear crisis, an estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the United States could be linked to radioactive fallout from Fukushima Daiichi. (RPHP has since revised that estimate–upward–to almost 22,000 deaths (PDF).)

That last study is not specifically detailed in Mad Science, but I hope we can touch on it today–along with some of the many equally maddening “experiments” in nuclear energy production that Mangano carefully unwraps in his book.

[Click here to read my two-hour chat with Joe Mangano.]

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Obama Drops Nuclear from Energy Segment of Convention Speech

Delegates react to President Barack Obama’s speech during the closing night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour)

Compare and contrast.

When then-Senator Barack Obama took the stage in Denver four years ago to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, he delivered what many saw as a powerful and pitch-perfect speech that contained an ambitious plan to correct course after eight years of President George W. Bush. But to this reporter, sitting amongst the cheering throngs at Mile High, one point hit a decidedly sour note.

In the section on energy, which began with the understanding that the country’s economy, security and energy futures are intertwined, Obama pledged to “end our dependence on oil from the Middle East” in ten years, and also spoke of investing $150 billion in renewable energy over that same decade. But then the Democratic nominee added this:

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power.

And with that, at least from where I sat (politically more than physically), a soaring speech came crashing to the ground. Even four years ago, “tapping natural gas reserves” was an ominous gloss-over for dangerous drilling techniques and increased carbon emissions. “Clean coal” had already proven to be nothing better than a marketing laugh line, something the Senator from coal-producing Illinois had to say. And “find[ing] ways to safely harness nuclear power,” well, funny that, both because it, too, felt like campaign-trail noblesse oblige for some of Obama’s biggest contributors, and because it implied that a safe way to harness nuclear power was something that had not yet been found.

But there it was–what would eventually come to be known as “fracking,” plus the myth of “clean coal,” and a big nod to the moribund nuclear power industry. One, two, three strikes in Obama’s energy pitch.

Fast, uh, “forward” four years, move indoors and 2,000 miles east, and listen to what President Obama had to say about America’s energy future in his 2012 convention speech:

We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines, and long-lasting batteries. In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

So, now you have a choice – between a strategy that reverses this progress, or one that builds on it. We’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we’ll open more. But unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers. We’re offering a better path.

We’re offering a better path, a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy; where — where we develop a hundred year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.

Yes, despite a concrete acknowledgement two minutes later that “climate change is not a hoax” and “droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke,” the president still brags of opening “millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years”–and then he promises to open more. And, yes, there is still a reference to the fool’s anthracite, “clean coal,” this time incongruously grouped with “wind and solar.” But notice what is not there–not in this section, not in the paragraph about the climate, not anywhere in the entire 38-minute speech.

President Obama no longer promises to “safely harness nuclear power”–that likely would have sounded like a cruel joke in a world now contaminated by the ongoing Fukushima disaster–but beyond that, he does not promise anything about nuclear power at all. There was no platitude, no carefully crafted signal to the industry that has subsidized much of Obama’s political career, no mention of nuclear power whatsoever.

That is not to say that the entire 2012 Democratic National Convention was a nuclear-free zone. A few hours before the president took the stage at the Time Warner Cable Arena, James Rogers, co-chair of the Charlotte host committee, and oh, by the way, CEO of Duke Energy, stepped to the lectern and endorsed Obama’s “all of the above” energy “strategy” (they keep using that word; I do not think it means what they think it means):

We need to work even harder toward a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy. That means we need to invest heavily in new zero-emission power sources, like new nuclear, wind and solar projects, as well as new technologies, like electric vehicles.

Well, if you are looking for a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy, you need look no further than nu–wait, what? If you are looking for those three features in an energy future, it is hard to imagine a worse option than the unsustainably expensive, chronically unreliable and dangerously dirty nuclear power plant. And, as has been discussed here many times, nuclear is not a zero-emission source, either. The massive carbon footprint of the nuclear fuel lifecycle rivals coal, and that doesn’t even consider the radioactive isotopes that facilities emit, even when they are not encountering one of their many “unusual events.”

But the CEO of the Charlotte-based energy giant probably has his eyes on a different prize. Rogers, who has been dogged by questions about a power grab after Duke’s merger with Progress Energy and his lackluster performance as fundraiser-in-chief for the DNC, sits atop a company that operates seven US nuclear power plants, and is partners in a plan to build two new AP1000 reactors in Cherokee County, South Carolina.

That last project, which is under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, awaiting a combined construction and operating license, is one of a small handful of proposed new nuclear facilities currently scrambling for financing. The South Carolina plant, along with a pair of reactors in Georgia, two slated for a different site in South Carolina, and possibly one more in Tennessee, represent what industry lobbyists like to call the “nuclear renaissance.”

But completion of any of the above is nowhere close to guaranteed, and even if some of these reactors are eventually built, none will be able to generate even one kilowatt of commercial power until years after President Obama completes his sought-after second term.

Which, if you really care about America’s energy future, is, of course, all for the better. As even James Rogers noted in his speech (and he gets props for this):

[W]e cannot lose sight of energy efficiency. Because the cleanest, most efficient power plant is the one we never have to build.

That Duke’s CEO thought to highlight efficiency is interesting. That President Obama, with his well-documented ties to the nuclear industry, chose not to even mention nuclear power is important.

In the wake of Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of Japanese have been displaced, where tens of thousands are showing elevated radiation exposure, and where thousands of children have thyroid abnormalities, no one can be cavalier about promising a safe harnessing of the atom. And in a world where radioisotopes from the breached reactors continue to turn up in fish and farm products, not only across Japan, but across the northern hemisphere, no one can pretend this is someone else’s problem.

Obama and his campaign advisors know all this and more. They know that most industrialized democracies have chosen to shift away from nuclear since the start of the Japanese crisis. They know that populations that have been polled on the matter want to see nuclear power phased out. And they know that in a time of deficit hysteria, nuclear power plants are an economic sinkhole.

And so, on a night when the president was promised one of the largest audiences of his entire campaign, he and his team decided that 2012 was not a year to throw a bone to Obama’s nuclear backers. Obama, a consummate politician, made the decision that for his second shot at casting for the future, nuclear power is political deadweight.

This is not to say that the Obama administration has thoroughly abandoned nuclear as part of its energy plan, or even its kitchen-sink rhetoric. There is no shortage of well-researched analysis detailing where the president’s deeds have failed to match his words, and it will take more than a significant omission in one speech to turn around the federal government’s policy of protecting and propping up the nuclear industry.

But the fact remains that at a convention underwritten by the head of a large nuclear energy conglomerate, nuclear energy didn’t even rate head-of-state lip service. That in a country where the nuclear industry tries desperately to brand itself as an energy of the future, the president decided to, at least rhetorically, leave it in the past. And that in a time where apostles of the atom claim that there is a nuclear rebirth, Barack Obama decided, on one of his biggest nights, that nuclear power would be better left for dead.

The Party Line – September 23, 2011: In Post-Fukushima Reality, What is the Future, and Who is Winning It?

Beginning a story with a correction for what might seem a technical detail might not provide the most attention-grabbing lede, but it opens the door to a broader, and important, observation.

Last week’s column contained reference to “large nuclear power-generating nations,” and then listed Australia as part of that group. That, as pointed out by reader Dgdonovan, was incorrect:

Australia is not a large nuclear power producing nation, in fact none of Australia’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Australia is a large uranium producing nation, however.

Indeed, while Australia may posses nearly a quarter of the world’s remaining uranium deposits, it has not commissioned a single industrial-scale nuclear reactor for electrical power generation. While the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant makes that look prudent, given the expansion of nuclear power over the last 50 years, it does seem odd.

Australia is hardly an industrial backwater. A member of the G20, Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy in terms of GDP. And it is not as if Australia has not considered building nuclear plants, most recently about five years ago. But nuclear power has never gotten off the ground in Australia for a rather basic reason: it is not supported by a majority of its people.

What the public wants, however, (as some recent events in the US seem to indicate) is not always what the public gets. Also required is a mechanism for the electorate to impose their will.

As previously observed, in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel committed her country to phasing out nuclear power generation in relatively short order, choosing to instead invest in renewables and efficiency. Merkel may have come to this decision based on the facts as now understood post Fukushima, but German domestic politics almost certainly came under consideration, too.

Merkel’s ruling coalition in the Bundestag currently includes her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the rightwing Free Democratic Party (FDP). By every indication, the FDP is heading for substantial losses in the next federal election, so the CDU will need a new coalition partner to keep Merkel in power. The most productive option is expected to be the Greens, and to woo them, Merkel found an opportune moment to move on a core Green Party issue.

Australia’s system is not identical to Germany’s, but the parliamentary (or Westminster) plan of the lower house introduces some of the same power dynamics. (Liberal-National Coalition PM John Howard proposed developing nuclear power in 2006; his party lost to anti-nuke Labor in 2007.) Federal and most regional elections are also decided by “preferential voting” (also known as IRV, or “instant runoff”). This form of democracy tends to give voters more options, and allows tertiary parties, and their issues, to gain a foothold in the system. Australia also accords a great deal of autonomy to its six state governments, where, for instance, it would be virtually impossible for the federal Australian government to put a nuclear power plant in a state if that state’s government had rejected it.

Contrast this with the United States, where, rather than responding to the new, post-Fukushima realities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signaled it is “full speed ahead” on the relicensing of old nuclear facilities (many of which are nearly identical to the Fukushima reactors; all of which are reaching the ends of their projected lifespans). Seabrook, in Connecticut New Hampshire, has just been granted permission to proceed toward relicensing, and it looks like re-upping the Massachusetts Pilgrim plant will also be moving ahead. This movement runs counter to the NRC’s own recent task force report advocating a new safety regime that incorporates lessons learned from Japan. And this relicensing also runs counter to substantial objections from state governments, nuclear watchdogs, and community activists.

Shouldn’t the chief regulatory agency wait until its new, proposed regulations are in place before giving out licenses for another 20 years of potentially dangerous operation? Under a governmental system that draws its regulators from the industry it regulates and funds its two-party, first-past-the-post elections with money from that industry, it appears not.

And regulatory protocol is not the only point of contrast. In Germany, the marketplace has already recognized the changing reality. Siemens, a German industrial giant, has announced that it is getting out of the nuclear power business:

It [Siemens] will build no further nuclear plants and is canceling its nuclear joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built all 17 of Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Siemens chief executive, Peter Loescher, (pictured) praised the Merkel government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants by 2022 and aim for an 80% to 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, calling it “a project of the century.”

Siemens recognizes that without government support, and without an automatic customer, there is no profit in nuclear power.

In the United States, where President Obama (a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from nuclear power companies) went out of his way to affirm the US commitment to nuclear generation immediately following the Japanese quake and tsunami, and where the federal government continues to offer loan guarantees for maintaining and operating nuclear plants, a very different picture is emerging:

Exelon Corporation and Constellation Energy have filed for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of their proposed merger. In the filing, the companies commit themselves to divesting three of Constellation’s non-nuclear power plants totaling [sic] 2648 MWe in a step to ensure the merger will not cause power market or competitive concerns in the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Power Pool in which they operate.

Constellation is the owner of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, which has recently come under scrutiny (OK, closer scrutiny, it has a long history of safety concerns) because of an emergency shutdown triggered by a transformer explosion during Hurricane Irene. Exelon, itself the product of a merger brokered by former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of Barack Obama’s largest campaign contributors. Exelon already operates more US nuclear plants than any other power company.

And this isn’t the only consolidation move in the US power sector. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, companies that operate nuclear facilities throughout the southeast, are seeking to form the country’s largest electric utility.

The Exelon-Constellation deal is facing opposition from Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, while the Duke-Progress merger has raised questions in North Carolina. But the final say on whether either deal goes through rests with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is comprised of five commissioners, each appointed by the president to a five-year term (in theory, anyway–one commissioner is still there, despite his term supposedly ending in June). As currently constituted, three members are George W. Bush appointees, two were picked by President Obama (though that does not necessarily predict how they will act). FERC’s decisions are final, and are not subject to any kind of Congressional vote.

The differences are stark. In Germany, where electoral realities have forced to the government to take an honest look at nuclear safety, market realities have delineated a path away from nuclear power and toward a renewable energy economy. In the US, where government is not only insulated from popular opinion but also beholden to corporate largess, elected officials, regulators and industry work hand-in-hand to perpetuate dangerous, expensive and inefficient technologies (while, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans vote to slash already threadbare programs meant to encourage renewable energy development).

In an age where so many economies are desperately trying not to lose any more ground in the present, could it be that the ones more responsive to their rank-and-file electorates are the ones in the best position to (to borrow a quickly forgotten phrase) win the future?